Kaala (2018)

Kaala

As with his previous film Madras, Pa. Ranjith is out to deliver a message and the fact that he has Superstar Rajinikanth on board is almost irrelevant. The film is all about the politics of land clearance in the slums of Mumbai and the population of Dharavi who rise in revolt against unscrupulous developers. Where Pa Ranjith does make use of Rajinikanth’s star power is to emphasise Kaala’s role as ‘King of Dharavi’ (presumably only the Tamil-speaking part) and he adds just enough slow-motion walking and villain tossing to keep fans happy. But for the most part this is a story about people power and that makes it rather more interesting than the usual Superstar-centric flick. Best of all Rajinikanth plays an age-appropriate character who has a touching romance with his age-appropriate wife, Selvi (Eswari Rao) while reminding us just how good Rajinikanth is as an actor.

Karikaalan (Rajinikanth) aka Kaala is the ageing leader of the slums who is pushed to defend his area from developers out to make Mumbai ‘Pure’ and beautiful. Once a gangster, he’s now a family man, and his introduction shows him playing cricket with his grandchildren and enjoying life at home. There are many domestic touches; Kaala’s relationship with his wife, the pet dog that follows him everywhere, and the rather more problematic relationship be has with his youngest son, but when it counts, Kaala still has the power to stop the bulldozers in their tracks when they show up to develop the dhobi ghat. He’s ably assisted by his eldest son Selvam (Dileepan) who dives straight into action and never lets dialogue get in the way of a good scrap, and his many loyal followers who believe that Kaala is still the ultimate authority in the area. On the other hand, his son Lenin (Manikandan) is an activist who prefers demonstration and petitions to direct action along with his girlfriend Charumathi (Anjali Patil). Manikandan is excellent and his portrayal of the frustrations with trying to fight a legal but slow and difficult battle against the background of his father and brother’s illegal but successful campaigns is brilliantly done. Anjali Patil stands out too as a force to be reckoned with, and her scrappy Charumathi is passionate and vibrant in her defence of the local community.

Opposing Kaala at every turn is corrupt politician Hari Dhadha (Nana Patekar) who is behind the developers plans to clear the land. He’s also a man with incredibly squeaky sandals. I’m not sure if India has the same superstition, but in Ireland squeaky shoes are a sign that they haven’t been paid for, with the implication that the wearer is someone who cannot be trusted. It fits Hari perfectly so I really hope this was intentional and not just a wardrobe glitch!

Dharavi sits on prime real estate and the developers want to rehouse only a small portion of the current residents, while saving the bulk of their redevelopment for the rich who will pay above the odds to live in such a convenient location. Hari and Kaala have a history, which makes their clashes personal, and Pa Ranjith ties their rivalry into the story of Rama and Raavana, but with a twist. Hari may always wear white and live in a house painted white with all white furnishings, but his Rama is a villain with no respect for the common man. Kaala wears black, lives in a house shrouded in shadows with a black settee, but this Raavana is the hero, fighting selflessly for the poor and oppressed who cannot stand up for themselves.

Rajinikanth steps easily into the role of the people’s defender, but what makes his Kaala so impressive is the relatability of the character. Despite his god-like status in the area he is a family man at heart and is simply trying to do his best for everyone. He is still in love with his wife and the scenes with Eswari Rao are brilliantly written to show the depth of their relationship while still allowing the couple to bicker continuously – typical of any long-term couple. The arrival of Kaala’s previous lover Zareena (Huma Qureshi) as a housing development specialist adds spice to the mix and the conflict of emotions from all involved is well worked into the narrative. However, Huma Qureshi’s character isn’t as well developed as that of Selvi and towards the end she’s side-lined just when I was expecting her to take a more prominent role. Zareena is a single mother and there is also an unfinished thread about her daughter which starts and then peters out into nothing, as if Pa Ranjith was so involved with everything else that he forgot to come back and tie off this part of the story.

Kaala also has support from his drunkard brother-in-law Vaaliyappan (Samuthirakani) who has some excellent lines in the second half when Hari successfully enlists police chief Pankaj Patil (Pankaj Tripathi) to burn down part of the slums. Ramesh Thilak also pops up as a reporter who has a more important role to play than first appears, while Sayaji Shinde, Ravi Kale and Sampath Raj are all good in minor roles. One of the best scenes though belongs to Lenin when he visits Charumathi in her building. He’s been campaigning for this type of development to replace the chawls but is dismayed by the endless stairs to climb when the lift is out of order and the over-crowding and lack of personal space in each small flat. It’s an excellent way to show the issues associated with rehousing schemes and the problems caused by squeezing people together into such tiny spaces, although it takes more drastic events before Lenin returns to his father’s side of the argument.

There are some excellent fight scenes although these don’t all feature Rajinikanth. However, the best (and my favourite) involves Kaala with an umbrella in a flyover in the rain. The final showdown in Dharavi is also well shot with excellent use of colour and plenty of symbolism for those who like to spot such stuff. I enjoyed the songs too, although there are a group of rap artists who keep popping up and look rather out of place. Rajinikanth keeps his moves basic and simple in keeping with his character, but he does look well and the choreography generally fits into the ambiance of the movie.

Nana Patekar makes a fantastic villain and is a suitable mix of wily politician and nasty thug throughout. His first scene with Zareena is very well written to portray the misogynistic behaviour so typical of politicians, but this time Pa Ranjith makes a point of letting the audience see exactly how petty and small-minded Hari appears as a result. Unfortunately, Nana’s dubbing isn’t always well done and the timing is out in a few scenes which is distracting. Along the same lines, the subtitles seem to be rather strict translations, which doesn’t always make sense in English and a few scenes suffer as a result.

Kaala is the film I wanted to see from the pairing of Pa Ranjith and Rajinikanth, and I enjoyed this much more than Kabali. There are strong female characters, a good support cast with well realised roles and an excellent performance from the superstar. There are a few glitches but for the most part the story is engaging with a simple message that translates well onto the big screen. Ranjith may prefer to use a wide brush for his political statements, but it’s the small details that work best here along with good use of the support characters. Highly recommended.

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Badlapur & Theevram

As I was watching Sriram Raghavan’s Badlapur I was struck by a number of similarities to Theevram, a Malayalam film I’d watched just a few weeks before, so it seemed appropriate to write about them together. Both are films based on a story of revenge where the hero is forced into action by his perceived lack of justice, and both star an up-and-coming young actor surrounded by an experienced and proficient support cast. While Badlapur focuses on the obsession of revenge and the destructive consequence to Raghu (Varun Dhawan), Theevram is a more straight forward drama with Harsha (Dulquher Salmaan) playing a game of cat and mouse with Police Inspector Alexander (Sreenivasan) as he exacts his revenge. Both are good films in their own right but while I prefer Badlapur’s more ambiguous storyline, Dulquher Salmaan just pips Varun Dhawan in his portrayal of a man driven to the absolute extreme for revenge.

The story of Theevram is told in a non-linear fashion, and is actually based on a couple of real life murder cases. Sreenivasan plays a respected police officer who has an unfortunate dislike of autopsy although there is nothing lacking in his detective skills. He’s paired with a younger officer, the more impetuous Ramachandran (Vinay Forrt) and the two make a good team. The film begins with Harsha’s revenge and it’s not until later that we discover why he has been driven to this extreme. At the start we don’t know if he is a good guy or a serial killer, as without any explanation he systematically tortures and kills a man in his plastic coated cellar. His actions seem to be at odds with his day-to-day life as a piano teacher, however once Inspector Alexander comes to call it becomes clear Harsha was the victim of a crime. Most of the film is shot with dull and muted colours, but once a flashback sequence starts, explaining what has happened to Harsha to turn him into this cold and methodical man, suddenly the colours are full and rich. A rather obvious metaphor but one which is very effective.

Harsha’s wife Maya (Shikha Nair) was murdered by a company driver Raghavan (Anu Mohan) for her complaints about his speeding with her in the car. Her murder is pre-meditated and brutal, with Raghavan severing her head from the body to attempt to delay identification. He’s quickly arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for his crime while Harsha struggles to cope with life without Maya. However, just as Harsha is starting to get on with his life, the circumstances of Raghavan’s family life allow the murderer to obtain an early release from jail. Very early. In fact he only spends 4 years behind bars before being allowed his freedom. Harsha and his friends Dr Roy (Vishnu Raghav) and Nimmy (Riya Saira) decide that Raghavan must die for his crime and set about planning the perfect murder.

Theevram rather controversially takes the view that murder for revenge is perfectly justified if the legal system has failed to properly punish the offender for his crime. Writer and director Roopesh Peethambaran delivers a story of vigilantism where the cold-blooded murder of a criminal is depicted as a good solution, and even acknowledged as such by the police. I can’t say that I agree with this view or with portraying Harsha as a hero for what he does, but the story is gripping and the plot cleverly developed. The contentious treatment of Raghavan is perhaps a way to start a discussion about such issues, and it’s interesting that he isn’t a completely black character. Raghavan does appear to try to look after his disabled wife and seems to be trying to turn over a new leaf after his release from jail. However his behaviour towards Nimmy suggests that the change may only be surface deep and he still has a poor attitude towards women.

Badlapur is a darker film where the lines between right and wrong are blurred and revenge is shown to be a weight dragging Raghu down. The first few minutes are brilliantly filmed, with a shot of a street, with people going their everyday business and the only sounds heard the traffic going past and snatches of conversations as vegetables are bought and gossip exchanged. However in the background there is a robbery, and as the two criminals leave the bank they force their way into a car parked outside where Misha (Yami Gautam) is just loading in her young son and her groceries. During the subsequent chase Robin falls out of the car, while Misha is shot and killed. While one of the robbers manages to escape, Liak (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is left to face the music. After his wife’s murder, Raghu becomes a haunted and driven man, obsessed with finding Liak’s partner whom he believes fired the fatal bullet. However in reality the opposite is true. Liak was the man who, in the heat of the moment shot and killed Misha, although he never confesses, insisting that he was just the driver.

15 years later when Liak is diagnosed with terminal cancer Raghu is persuaded to plead for Liak’s early release in the hope that he will run to his old partner in crime. Raghu’s bereavement turns him into a cold, hard man who rapes and abuses Liak’s girlfriend Jhimli (Huma Qureshi) as part of his revenge. He’s so obsessed with the idea of finding the man behind his wife’s death that he lives a miserable life, alone and in fairly dismal circumstances. The tragedy has become what has defined the man and it seems as if only his plans for revenge keep him going.

Here, revenge is shown as something that corrupts. Raghu becomes more despicable than his enemy, killing Liak’s partner Harman (Vinay Pathak) and wife Kanchan (Radhika Apte) in cold blood. Liak himself is shown as a rather grey character, who seems to have more of a life than Raghu, despite spending most of it behind bars.

Dulquher Salmaan and Varun Dhawan both do an excellent job as young men devastated by their loss. The problem I have with Varun’s character is that it takes 15 years before he manages to achieve his revenge, and it seems unlikely that he could have maintained his rage so long. Varun tries hard but doesn’t quite manage to pull off playing a man in his forties although he does convey his preoccupation with finding Liak’s partner and his disconnection from normal life very well. Dulquher has an easier time of it, as his character only has to wait 4 years to exact revenge, and his protagonist is easier to dislike. Dulquher is also a man who has managed to move on with his life and although his world is duller without Maya, he would have been content to let Raghavan rot in jail if he’d just stayed there. His revenge is coldly plotted with great attention to detail but there seems to be little rage left – in fact little emotion at all.

Both films are made even better by their excellent support cast. Badlapur would have been less substantial and the revenge less ambiguous without the excellent Nawazuddin Siddiqui and his nuanced performance as the main antagonist. Sreenivasan doesn’t have such a consequential role, but his support and that of Vinay Forrt rounds out the story and ensures a satisfying plot. The films are brutal, both in the violence they depict and in the exposure of such deep despair but there are lighter hearted moments in both and it’s not all doom and gloom. There is just enough light to allow the shade space to deepen and both directors have paced their films well. The strength of both Badlapur and Theevram is in the portrayal of emotions and it’s heartening to see two young actors bring so much depth to their roles. I enjoyed both these films and recommend them for a combination of fine performances, strongly written characters and good storytelling. 4 for both.